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Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Season Two
Created by Joss Whedon

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Season Two
Principal Cast
Eliza Dushku -- Echo
Tahmoh Penikett -- Paul Ballard
Harry Lennix -- Boyd Langton
Fran Kranz -- Topher Brink
Enver Gjokaj -- Victor
Dichen Lachman -- Sierra
Olivia Williams -- Adelle DeWitt
Amy Acker -- Dr. Claire Saunders
Reed Diamond -- Laurence Dominic
Miracle Laurie -- Mellie
 
Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Season Two
 
Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Season Two
 
Joss Whedon's Dollhouse: Season Two
A review by David Newbert

"Feeling nothing would be worse. That would be like before... asleep. And I'm awake now. I don't want to go back to sleep."
--Echo
The second season of Dollhouse has begun, and I'm afraid I have some good news and some bad news. Good news first: the first three episodes out of the gate are everything they needed to be artistically, setting the stage for an exciting run and showing that Joss Whedon and his brain trust are back in charge. Now the bad news: these are Dollhouse's lowest rated episodes ever. The series was never a ratings coup for FOX, but these new numbers are ridiculous. For comparison, the ratings winner on Friday nights -- Ghost Whisperer -- pulls in about 8.5 million viewers each night, whereas Dollhouse only posts about 2 million. And one of the reasons it came back this fall wasn't that it was a hit, but that Joss Whedon promised he could make it for less money. If there's a silver lining to be found in this, it's that every other TV program on Friday night is tanking as well. And there's one more thing, but I'll get to that later.

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Let's take a look at what's been happening episode by episode. As usual, minor spoiler rules apply:

"Vows" —I'm not sure that it's possible for Dollhouse to be an even sexier show than it was last season (we're talking about a show outside of cable, mind you), but God bless 'em, they're certainly going to try. It only took about eleven minutes for Eliza Dushku to have stripped down to her underwear; later, Whiskey (formerly Dr. Saunders) will do the same thing to try and seduce Topher (Fran Kranz) in his sleep; Ballard (Tahmoh Penikett) gives Echo a foot massage; and even Adelle DeWitt has a spunky new haircut (the lovelier-than-ever Olivia Williams). And if that isn't enough, this episode also features Battlestar's Apollo, Jamie Bamber. Sex sells, especially on FOX -- not that I'm really complaining.

In this season premiere, Ballard is working with the Dollhouse to bring down a British arms dealer (Bamber) that he spent years trying to catch with the FBI. Echo has been imprinted as Ballard's longtime partner and has gone undercover, eventually becoming the target's wife. Meanwhile, Saunders/Whiskey is having a tough time dealing with the revelation that her life is only an imprint constructed by Topher. And Adelle, who doesn't entirely trust Ballard, is interested in having him become Echo's permanent handler. She may be brewing further plans for him as well.

This was a shrewd way to open the second season. Previously, Topher was completely unsympathetic as the arrogant genius behind the Dollhouse tech, but this one builds on the rueful self-awareness he began to show in "Omega." He seems genuinely sorry for what he did to Whiskey, and it promises a special story arc for later in the season. It also makes it more poignant when Whiskey, who is exploring her feelings about being a programmed creation, focuses her anger on Topher: "My entire personality was constructed by a sociopath in a sweater vest!" Her story brings to mind a lot of the Frankenstein call backs that Whedon enjoyed dropping into the first season's opener, and introduces many of the same philosophical problems that were emotionally powerful and intellectually exciting. She runs off at the end, and rumour has it that she'll be back for at least a few more episodes, but if she never returns, she at least goes out memorably.

Much of the physical action remains centered on Echo, and she gets a workout here. The moment where her head was slammed into a desk was a nasty surprise, but it also contributes to what becomes a major revelation: Echo remembers everyone she's been. Not perfectly, but well enough to whet your appetite for future developments. Also, Bamber plays a surprisingly good villain, and seeing the relationship between Echo and Ballard begin to sweeten into something romantic, however subtly, is a nice touch.

"Instinct" —Echo is imprinted as a newborn's mother, but when the persona is washed away, she can't turn off the maternal instinct. It leads to one confrontation after another with the child's father, culminating in a standoff at knife point. This is a great one to show the emotional fallout of an engagement on everyone's nerves: actives, clients, and handlers. It was nice to see Dushku throw herself into this role with gusto, but then she's been doing that in almost every episode to date. Making Adelle more sympathetic was a welcome addition, and seeing Ballard's response to the brief return of Mellie was touching. But this episode doesn't quite land the emotional punch you would think it should, and the final scene -- meant to show how Echo's personality is growing with each engagement -- doesn't feel satisfying. But acting-wise, it's terrific, and all is forgiven with the next installment…

"Belle Chose" —This is one of the best adventures they've done yet. A Dollhouse shareholder's psychotic nephew -- a secret serial killer -- has kidnapped and drugged several women to use them as playthings, but is in a coma following an accident. The Dollhouse downloads his mind into Victor (Enver Gjokaj) in the hope that Ballard's questioning will reveal where the women are being kept. Meanwhile, Echo is programmed as an English professor's seductive fantasy. How these two plot lines intersect is a wild and unpredictable ride, and it gives Dushku and Gjokaj their best opportunities yet to showcase their range. I'm not surprised to see that the writer was Tim Minear, who wrote some of Angel's darkest and nastiest episodes. (Remember the one where Angel confronts Darla and Drusilla, and decides to set them on fire? That was Minear's writing.) There's also the building camraderie between Adelle and Ballard that we know can't end well, and a moment where Ballard encounters Echo in the Dollhouse shower that comes off more as a tender encounter than exploitation. This episode has the works: danger, humour, great acting, creepy plot twists, and a terrific ending. I wouldn't ask them to change a single thing.

So will you get a chance to see any more of Dollhouse? Well, here's some further good news: just like last season, when you add the DVR numbers to the show's ratings, they jump by about fifty percent! That's enough to convince FOX to stick with airing the show through the first thirteen episodes this season, and if the ratings build, maybe they'll take an option on nine more. But for that to happen, you have to watch the damn thing. And if you do, you'll get to see Summer Glau in upcoming installments. And Alexis Denisof as a recurring antagonist for Adelle. And the return of Alan Tudyk as Alpha. See, the good news just keeps on coming…

Dollhouse, for now, airs on Friday nights on the FOX Network. Visit www.fox.com/dollhouse for video of previously aired episodes.

Copyright © 2009 David Newbert

David Newbert worked for public and university libraries for several years while studying film and literature, then joined the college book trade. He grew up on the East Coast, though he currently lives in New Mexico, where the aliens landed.


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